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Recording of the Week, Four Hands - Alexandre Tharaud & Friends

Four Hands - Alexandre Tharaud & friendsAlexandre Tharaud’s releases are consistently interesting, with Versailles and Cinema both offering fresh approaches to programming alongside his recordings of mainstream repertoire. Very recently, he appeared as a two-piano partner on Martin James Bartlett’s La Danse album, and Bartlett returns the favour as one of many accomplices on this new release dedicated to music for four hands.

Tharaud’s friends list is a roll call of household names as well as some surprise appearances, including the countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, who brings a singer’s phrasing to Gabriel Pierné's Barcarolle, Op. 26. The press-release quotes Tharaud as saying the album was 'made for the sheer pleasure of it'. This is tangibly translated in much of the playing, across a programme that ranges from Bach to Glass.

This album achieves a perfect balance between light approachability and an abundance of the fine musicianship and pianism needed to maintain the attention of committed afficionados, much in the spirit of Stephen Hough’s Piano Album. Tharaud is a continuous anchor in the sympathetic pacing and architecture of the performances, always giving an ear to the overall balance of sound. The excerpt from Ravel's Ma Mère l'Oye, with Bertrand Chamayou, is a fine example of this, benefitting from a coherency that sounds like one player, but with the orchestral possibilities offered by four hands. They build beautifully from a calming stillness in the chorale-like opening to a glittering climax of glissandi.

The textural and rhythmic possibilities offered by four hands come together in spectacular style in Piazzolla's Libertango, played with Beatrice Rana. The two players inhabit the music with total security, bringing out the passionate dance of the tango rhythms amongst a thrilling display of technical and musical prowess. Rana and Tharaud exploit the full tonal and dynamic capabilities of the modern concert grand piano to create something truly mesmerising, and this has been captured in the top-drawer sound afforded throughout this release.

There is similarly engaging vibrancy in Poulenc (the first movement of the early Sonata for Four Hands) with Emmanuel Strosser, and in the ‘Galop-marche a huit mains’ by Albert Lavignac with Frank Braley, both of whom throw themselves into the theatrical musicianship of the instigator.

Fauré's Dolly Suite is one of the most well-known and played pieces for four hands, and Tharaud partners with the late Nicholas Angelich in the 'Berceuse' to demonstrate that two pianists don’t always have to equal double showmanship, and familiarity doesn’t have to breed contempt. Angelich floats the subtly phrased melody beautifully against the gentle lilt of Tharaud’s accompanying figuration, the two coming together to create an atmosphere of quiet playfulness and reflection.

Music and partners are mostly well matched, nowhere more so than in the closing Bizet ('Le bal' from Jeux d'enfants) played with Martin James Bartlett, whose skittish flamboyance combines with Tharaud’s flexibility and flair to bring the playful character of the piece to life. There’s plenty of opportunity for ensemble to fall apart here, but Bartlett and Tharaud achieve impressive precision and effortlessly create the illusion that this could be one person with extra hands. I would love to have heard them in the opening Brahms Hungarian Dance (No. 5) instead of the slightly earthbound interpretation with Bruce Liu.

These are just some of the highlights of a great celebration of the possibilities offered by four hands. Slightly surprising is the 47 seconds of Tharaud playing on his own, in ‘The Just Average’ by Charles-Henry, but it’s a very enjoyable midway lollipop and it nicely demonstrates the difference between two hands and four.

I think Four Hands will encourage many listeners, pianists (and maybe a host of other musicians with secret keyboard skills) to explore the repertoire further, fulfilling Tharaud’s aim in curating and leading this splendid collection.

Alexandre Tharaud (piano) and friends

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC